Writers in Profile: Helene Hanff and the Book that Changed her Life

Helene Hanff wrote several books, both for adults and for children, but the one book that everyone knows her for, is 84 Charing Cross Road. It is a gem of a book that become a stage play which had a phenomenal run in the UK and was then made into a movie that some have called, the best movie ever made about reading. This was the book that took Helene from being a failed playwright and a perpetually struggling writer to a much beloved one.

Helene grew up in Philadelphia during the great depression. She had to quit college after only a year and go to work. She went to the local library to borrow books on English literature, and she began to educate herself at home. Of all the books she took home, the ones that influenced her the most and gave her a life-long love of literature were two volumes of lectures by Sir Arthur Quiller Couch.

In between working and studying, Helene was writing plays. She grew up in a family that had a deep love of and reverence for the theatre, so she had decided early on that she was going to be a playwright. She won an annual playwriting competition conducted by an organisation called the Bureau of New Plays. She was awarded a $1500 fellowship and entered into a playwriting seminar to be conducted by the Theatre Guild. She packed up and moved to New York and her life, it seemed, was off to a flying start.

Over the next few years, she met several producers who had read one or the other of her plays and wanted to talk to her, but none of them went on to produce any of them. Helene wasn’t discouraged. She kept writing. She got a job with the press department of the Theatre Guild and saw a lot of the inner workings of a theatre company, all of which she writes about with great gusto in her first book, Underfoot in Show Business.

She wrote more plays and met more producers, but nothing came of it. Hanff said, later, that the problem with her plays was that while she could write interesting characters and charming dialogue, she couldn’t write a decent plot. After several years of working in the theatre and hoping that one of her plays would make it to the stage, she gave up and moved on to writing for television.

Through all her years in the theatre and in television, Helene retained her love of literature. She had, what she described as, an antiquarian taste in books, and she was frustrated by the fact that the kind of books that she wanted were expensive and hard to get in America. She kept borrowing books from the library and hated giving them back. Then came the day in 1949 when she came across an ad in the Saturday Review of Literature. It was an ad for Marks & Co, a second-hand bookshop in London, who described themselves as antiquarian booksellers.

She wrote them a letter listing some of the books that she wanted to buy. The person who wrote back to her was Frank Doel, the principal buyer for Marks & Co. He sent her a couple of the books that she had asked for and a correspondence began. Initially, they talked about books and writers and shared a few ideas and opinions. Then they began to share details of their lives. They found that they had a similar sense of humour, and they soon became friends.

When Helene heard from another friend about post-war rationing in England, she began to send food parcels to the shop, an act of real generosity on her part, given that she was a struggling writer and that she didn’t have all that much herself. Everyone in the shop was immensely grateful and they wrote letters to thank her. Soon she knew everyone who worked at the shop.

For twenty years, Helene and Frank shared the ups and downs of their lives. She kept making plans to go to London and finally seeing her bookshop, as she thought of it, but she never really had the money to afford the trip. Then, on a bleak January day in 1969, at what Helene describes as the lowest point in her professional life, a letter arrived from Marks & Co telling her that Frank Doel had died. It was a real blow.  

Once she was done grieving, there was only one thought in her head. She had to publish her correspondence with Frank and memorialise her relationship with Marks & Co, the bookshop that had sold her so many beautiful books and given her a link with London, a city that she had loved all her life, though she’d never actually been there.

When Helene gathered up all of her and Frank’s letters and put this book together, she was doing it for herself, she wanted to publish the correspondence because it had been such an important part of her life that she wanted to preserve it in a form in which she could revisit it at will. She hoped that some readers would enjoy it as well. She had no idea that so many people would fall so completely in love with it. She had no idea that this book would change her life.

A few months after 84 Charing Cross Road was published in America, it was purchased by Andre Deutsch for publication in the UK. He invited Helene to London and thanks to the money that she earned from the UK sale of the book, she finally got her wish. Two days after she landed and took up temporary residence at the Kenilworth Hotel, which is located on Bloomsbury Street, she declared herself The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street which became the title of her next book, which is essentially a diary, a record of her first visit to England.

It is every bit as wonderful a book as 84…It has spirit, exuberance, a delightful sense of humour and a sense of wonder suffusing the whole thing, like Helene cannot believe that she’s actually in London, seeing all these places that she has dreamed of for years, being interviewed by the BBC, being asked to autograph books like she’s a real writer…which she is of course, but it’s clear from the way she writes that after years of being a struggling writer she was simply not able to believe that she’d finally made it. 

Several good things followed. In 1975, 84 Charing Cross Road was made into a television play for the BBC, and Helene made her second trip to London to watch some of the recording of the show. A few years later, James Roose-Evans turned 84…into a stage play, which was performed on London’s West End and then on Broadway. The play didn’t do all that well on Broadway, but it was a huge success in London.

Helene was invited to the world premiere, and she writes that it was one of the best experiences of her life, to sit in the audience and see herself portrayed on stage while the audience around her reacted with warmth and emotion to her words. She went up on stage when the play ended, to take a bow with the cast. It was a memorable moment and a slightly ironic one. She’d spent twenty years of her life trying to become a successful playwright and she’d failed. Long after she’d given up that dream, here she was, on a stage in London, no less. It wasn’t her play, but it was her words that had inspired it.

Incredibly, more success followed. Mel Brooks bought the rights to the book for his wife Anne Bancroft and gave us the movie version of 84 Charing Cross Road in 1987. Anne Bancroft played Helene, while Sir Anthony Hopkins was cast as Frank. The film was made as two separate halves, with one production unit in New York and the other in London. The two actors did not meet during the filming of the movie, just as Helene and Frank had never met through their long correspondence.

The result is an utterly charming film. The words are the same as in the book, but the film adds the visual element, the letters now have the backdrop of the two cities, of Helene’s beloved apartment and most importantly, the bookshop. This time when Helene visited London, she found herself meeting royalty. She met Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles, Princess Diana and The Queen Mother when she attended a royal gala performance of the film.

Ten Years later, in April 1997, Helene Hanff died as a result of complications from Pneumonia and diabetes. She was just a few days short of her 81st birthday. To the end, her fans from around the world kept writing letters. They sent gifts and made phone calls. Hanff writes about one memorable phone call that she got from Alaska. The woman who called her told her that she adored Helene’s books and that this phone call (long-distance and expensive back then) was her birthday gift from her husband. She and her husband had had to travel several miles just so they could get to a phone booth to make the call.

Today there is a plaque that marks the spot where Marks & Co once stood:

What is it that made 84 Charing Cross Road so special? It is Helene herself. Her personality comes through clearly in her letters, which are full of life and spirit. And she’s funny, genuinely so. Frank is more measured in his writing, and he makes the perfect foil for her exuberance. Through the book, you are aware that Helene is a struggling writer and that she has a bunch of financial troubles, but it seems like nothing can faze her. She takes it all in her stride. As long as she has her books, she’s happy.

84…was not a bestseller. It did not sell millions of copies. It did something better. It became a cult book. Readers all over the world fell in love with it, and they wrote Helene hundreds of fan letters to tell her so. Even today, more than fifty years after it was first published, no list of books about books is complete without 84 Charing Cross road.

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